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Obama's African Footprint: Downsized and Militarized


President Obama announced a $7 billion aid package to sub-Saharan Africa today to increase the region’s access to electricity. He made the announcement in South Africa, part of a three nation tour of the continent that began in Senegal and will conclude in Tanzania. While this pledge, the cost of the trip, and Nelson Mandela’s deteriorating condition have all given the media plenty to talk about, this trip is a good opportunity to reflect on Obama’s legacy in Africa.

People note that Bush was more active in Africa than Obama. That’s not completely true—Obama has actually taken more military action in Africa than Bush, and is likely to continue doing more on that front. But overall there’s a sense in which Africa may be falling off of the US radar screen—that it has gone down a few notches on our priority list.

The reason is oil: heightened US interest in west Africa, Angola and the gulf of Guinea was related to sense that Africa was part of a large hedging strategy for the US against excessive dependence on Middle East oil. But as time has gone by, and the problems of west Africa (above all in Nigeria) have looked ever more intractable, the vast oil discoveries across North America and throughout the western hemisphere have reduced the strategic significance of African oil in US foreign policy thinking.

But if African oil is less of a motivator for involvement, terrorism may well be something that keeps America engaged in the region. There are signs that the jihadis see the weak states and conflicted societies in northern and central Africa as fertile territory and, if so, the US is likely to maintain a stepped up military presence there.

For historical, religous and ethical reasons a lot of Americans want to do what we can to promote growth and freedom in the continent. But given America’s global strategic priorities, it’s not terribly likely that the current policy trajectory is going to change much. Of the many ironies of the Obama presidency, it won’t be the smallest if it marks a time in which our economic and humanitarian interests in Africa shrink and the American footprint is both downsized and militarized.

[Obama in Africa photo courtesy of Getty Images.]

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